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'Mystique' meets Manning in AFC title game

    INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Dungy calls it ‘‘the Patriots Mystique’’ and acknowledges it’s something he and the Indianapolis Colts have to overcome to get to their first Super Bowl.
    That has to be something Bill Belichick loves. One reason New England has won three NFL titles in the past five seasons is because it gets into the heads of opponents — none more so than Peyton Manning and the Colts.
    Thus the theme for Sunday’s AFC championship game at the RCA Dome — the Patriots, a bit undermanned compared to previous years, against the talented but frustrated Colts, who twice have been knocked out of the playoffs by Belichick’s team en route to the Super Bowl.
    ‘‘You have to play them and not their mystique, and that’s hard to do,’’ says Dungy, the Colts coach who has reached this point twice before without making it to the NFL’s marquee game despite a regular-season record of 114-62, a winning percentage of .648.
    Most of the pressure seems to be on Manning, who holds myriad passing records, including 49 touchdown passes in the 2004 season, but never has gotten to the Super Bowl and is 5-6 in playoff games.
    That’s in stark contrast to Tom Brady of the Patriots, who has less gaudy passing stats but is 12-1 in the postseason. He owns three Super Bowl rings and two Super Bowl MVP awards for twice driving New England to the winning score on the final drive. Each time, the winning field goal was kicked by Adam Vinatieri, now a Colt.
    The party line on Manning was best expressed this week by Colts center Jeff Saturday — largely because the Colts quarterback was kept away from the media by the team for most of the week.
    ‘‘Peyton is a great quarterback in regular season and postseason,’’ Saturday said. ‘‘When he plays well, he gets a great amount of credit. When he doesn’t play well, he gets slaughtered. That shouldn’t be. It’s our team that wins or loses.’’
    Neither Manning nor Brady has played especially well this postseason, in which their teams entered the playoffs as the third- and fourth-seeded teams in the AFC with regular-season records of 12-4.
    Manning has thrown five interceptions and has just one touchdown pass in wins over Kansas City and Baltimore and his passer rating is 58.9, a figure that gets quarterbacks benched under normal circumstances.
    But the Colts’ defense, which allowed 173 yards rushing per game in the regular season, by far the worst in the NFL, has allowed just one touchdown and a total of 127 yards rushing in the two games combined. The return to health of strong safety Bob Sanders and the development of defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, acquired in October, are cited as reasons.
    The Patriots also have won with defense although, as usual, they have an unexpected star — wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, who has 18 receptions in the playoffs after having 11 in the regular season after being picked up off the street in October.
    Gaffney had 10 catches against San Diego last week, but Brady also threw three interceptions in the 27-24 win over the Chargers. Still, one of them was fumbled back on the same play by the Chargers and led to the Patriots’ tying fourth-quarter touchdown.
    Talk about ‘‘Patriots Mystique.’’
    Still, that’s in the past, as are the two playoff games won by New England over Indianapolis — a 24-14 victory in the 2004 AFC title game and 20-3 two years ago in a second-round game. Both those games were in Foxborough, as were wins by the Colts over the Patriots the last two seasons: 40-21 in 2005 and 27-20 this season, the latter giving Indy the tiebreaker for home field for this game.
    In fact, these teams have met seven times in the past four seasons and were division rivals who met twice a year before the league was realigned for the 2002 season.
    ‘‘We know we’ve had a great history with this team, but to me I don’t really think any of that makes any difference,’’ says Belichick, who is known for his secretive ways — he has yet to disclose the specifics of injuries to key players from past seasons and always lists Brady as ‘‘probable’’ with a shoulder problem.
    ‘‘It’s not 100 percent,’’ Belichick says when asked about Brady — as if any NFL quarterback’s shoulder is ever 100 percent.
    Dungy, by contrast, is one of the more open coaches in the league — especially on racial matters. The most successful black coach in NFL history, he also could become the first to coach in a Super Bowl — or one of the first two if his good friend Lovie Smith of the Bears gets there by beating New Orleans for the NFC championship.
    Beyond Manning and Brady, there is another major subplot — Vinatieri, the best clutch kicker in NFL history.
    Vinatieri spent his first 10 seasons in New England, but reached his peak in the last five — kicking the winning field goals in the final seconds of the 2002 and 2004 Super Bowls as well as two long field goals in the snow in a 2002 playoff game with Oakland that allowed the Patriots to move on.
    But New England let him become a free agent after last season and he ended up as a Colt. He missed two attempts against the Patriots in the regular season, but kicked five in Baltimore last week — all of Indianapolis’ points in a 15-6 win.
    ‘‘You never know what to expect,’’ he said. ‘‘I assumed the Patriots would be a good team this year just as I assumed the Colts would be a good team. So I figured if we kept winning, our paths would cross eventually.’’
    That they’re meeting in Indianapolis should be a good omen for the Colts, who are 9-0 at home this season on the fast field. That helps not only Manning, Marvin Harrison and his other receivers, but also the very quick pass-rushing defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
    ‘‘They play very well on the turf,’’ Brady says. ‘‘Freeney is fast everywhere. He was fast on our field, if you can imagine that, when it was that mud and painted dirt. Mathis is good. All those linebackers are active and aggressive and the secondary is really playing well. Bob Sanders is one of the best in the game. So they have a bunch of very skilled defensive players, and when it is very loud in that dome I think they take advantage of that as well.’’

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